Whatever sentiment of joy the girl or the awakened lions had felt was not shared by the young man standing with them.
“Elanore!” Fear took hold of Edmund as he saw the young woman crumple to the ground. He dropped to his knees to tend to the girl whose cloak and hair spilled across the snow. A deep line creased his brow as he gently shook the woman.
The lions stopped their chattering, training their eyes upon the young man who continued to call to her. As his voice grew tighter and more insistent, they joined him at her side and nudged her hands and face with their noses.
What purpose this act served he did not understand until they turned to him and did the same.
Considering their size and heaviness, their touch was surprisingly gentle. The feel of stone was cold but it changed as a familiar tingle ran through his arms. Energy passed from them through him, warming him and easing his anxiety. He took a deep breath. Once. Twice. He then realized Elanore was doing the same, breathing with him. And he knew.
This was magic. Their magic.
“SHE IS NOT HURT,” a lion spoke to him directly. “WE HAVE DETERMINED THAT SHE IS ONLY RESTING. SHE IS INEXPERIENCED WITH MAGIC AND USED TOO MUCH ENERGY. WE HAVE GIVEN HER A SMALL PORTION SO SHE MAY SLEEP BETTER.”
The lion spoke to him as if he were a child who knew nothing. In a way that was the case. He knew nothing of magic and its rules, of the cost of its use, and how it affected someone like Elanore. But he saw she was breathing easier now. “Thank you,” he said to the four creatures.
The creature opened his mouth as if to say more but halted when Elanore stirred slightly and murmured something about food. Edmund blinked, more relieved than he would permit himself to admit. That relief faded, only to be replaced by an instinct to leave this place. He lifted her as he stood. “I must take her home right away.” And with a quickness that startled the lions, he moved towards the gate.
“UWAIN SAID HE IS RESPONSIBLE AND WANTS TO CARRY HER.” Lamb protested while all the lions trailed after him, making insistent noises. “GAWAIN SAYS YOU HAVE HORSES AND TO WAIT.”
Edmund looked about blankly but kept proceeding.
“BOY!” The lions crossed his path and stopped him. “TIS TOO FAR.”
Edmund took a deep breath and urged himself to allow thought to prevail over instinct. They were right in that he could not carry her home but their solution was not much better. “Parading Elanore down the road on a lion’s back will not do. I don’t think the townspeople can handle your existence yet. Not without some explanation.”
“DON’T BE FOOLISH,” Lambegus blasted. “YOU CANNOT MANAGE HER ALONE.”
The lion’s loud words swayed him. Edmund began to kneel in the snow, the weight of Elanore pressing upon him. “I will wait for the servant that was here earlier and the horses. But hurry.”
Immediately two of the lions ran off leaving the other two to escort Edmund and Elanore back towards the house. They kept close as if they feared he would bolt up the long pathway to the gate.
When they reached front circle drive, the butler and another middle-aged gentleman hurried out to meet them. They would have taken her from him, but Edmund balked at the suggestion. His earlier fear for Elanore’s health had been replaced by anger towards their absent master. He refused to leave the young woman with the servants of a man who he had no reason to believe could care for her as he ought to.
As rational as that decision was, underneath that motive was a much simpler one. He could not be so as unfeeling as to leave the woman who had just kissed him behind! Edmund bristled at the butler who continued to argue with him. “I will take her home,” he firmly stated.
His iron-clad voice caused the lions to skitter about nervously. And the butler meekly stopped his protestations.
They were at an impasse until the coachman substitute, Charles, offered to bring out the coach and help convey the young miss back home.
Edmund was not so stubborn that he was unable to see the value in such an arrangement. He relented, allowing the coachman to provide assistance in placing Elanore and the various packages that contained books inside the coach. Hastings did not look all that pleased but did not get in the way.
The lions watched all of these preparations with great interest. They kept close to Edmund at all times. He had to wave them away so he could mount Elanore’s horse and guide it up the path towards the gated entrance.
The lions lagged behind both him and his horse, creating a great deal of noise as they did so. Edmund had to stop to address them for he feared they would follow him all the way back to town. “It’s safest for you here,” he called back, hoping that they would understand.
“PLEASE COME BACK SOON,” Lambegus begged for them all.
He pitied them. “Somehow, I’ll come back tomorrow. I promised several of you gifts didn’t I? And to play with you?”
“YES,” Lambegus sounded rather relieved.
Edmund glanced up at the coach navigating the gate. He looked apologetically at the lions. “But I shall come alone. ”
The lions nodded eagerly. “COME BACK,” Lambegus spoke. “GAWAIN SAYS WE WILL TEACH YOU TO HELP THE GIRL.”
Edmund wondered if the lions understood that he did not possess any gifts or talents that could serve them. The idea that he could do anything inherently magical to help her made little sense to him. But he nodded. “Alright.”
The lions seemed pleased by his response. At least one circled around in its spot its joy at his statement.
“Go back to the butler,” he said kindly. “He is likely uneasy that you left his sight. It causes the people of this house a great deal of worry when you wander off.”
They hung their heads, acknowledging his request. Reluctantly, they turned back towards the house, going as slowly as they could until Edmund had disappeared out of their sight.
While the lions rambled back down the hilly path and walked through the courtyard of statues, their talk focused on Elanore’s companion. Their experience with humans was limited, but they were pleased how Edmund had indulged and listened to them. There was more to it, of course. He had unintentionally imprinted upon several of them as he assisted with their waking. To them he was not unlike a parent bringing forth a child into the world.
The butler watched the creatures as they lazily walked towards him. He did not know of what they spoke. Instead, he wondered what business they had with the young hunter whom they had followed to the gate. He also did not understand their intent when they came to the step under the wooden doorframe and lay down.
He began to perspire nervously as they turned their eyes upon him. Hastings did not have to endure their stares for too long. A few minutes passed and their master emerged with a troubled look on his face.
“I am fine,” the Count waved off the gentleman who rushed to his side. He rubbed at a torn glove while he looked at four stone beasts hovering at his door.
The manservant would not be so easily deterred from fussing over his lord. “Sir, you’ve been scratched!”
The Count shrugged. “This is a minor inconvenience. Giles is not his usual self. Return inside and see to him.”
The man stared for a moment. “We just sent the healer away. Perhaps—”
“This is not the sort of thing that we would entrust to her.” The Count adjusted the tip of his collar on his coat. “We’ve used up all the tonic; you need to instruct the kitchen staff on how to make more. Once it’s done take Smith in with you and have him assist you with administering it to Giles.”
“Oh,” Hastings paled. “It’s that far gone, sir?”
“Giles pushed himself too hard to cover that much ground in one day. The cold and his exhausted state have made the usual after effects of the transformation completely unstable.”
“It’ll have to be someone else.” Hastings appeared somewhat uneasy. “Smith has taken Miss Redley. She was not up to riding back alone.”
The Count’s eyes rested on the lions still standing before him. “Four of you,” he spoke to himself. “Indeed, I can see that she would be exhausted.”
His eyes snapped back at Hastings and he frowned, wondering why the man was still there. Perhaps his thoughts had wandered. “I left Barston there. He’s able enough. Tell the other servants about Giles.”
“But they don’t know!”
“They must,” the Count interrupted. “I expect a host of family members to soon arrive here if Giles’ news is correct. Giles will not be the only one who will need help.”
Hastings bowed quickly, chastened by his master’s scolding. “Yes, sir.”
Wolfram placed a reassuring hand on his servant’s shoulder. “Do not worry. This is but a small incident in light of all the things that we could be facing. You will have help soon too, Hastings. If my cousins do come, they will bring a retinue of younger servants and staff to assist you. ”
“I understand, sir.” Hastings’ face resolved itself into an expressionless look before he bowed and disappeared inside the home.
“Now,” the Count turned his attention back to the four lions eyeing him with great interest. “Who do we have here?”
He was relieved when one spoke, one that politely introduced himself and his three companions. “Lambegus,” the Count sounded pleased. “I’m glad that Gawain saw fit to wake you.”
“GALAHAD’S DOING,” Lambegus shouted. “GAWAIN WANTED UWAIN.”
A paw swiped at the very loud lion, likely Gawain’s. The creatures began to scuffle slightly, for reasons he couldn’t gather. Lambegus was quite beside himself, shouting at the “DIMWITS” who had failed to realize that their master could not hear them!
“Enough!” The Count tapped his cane heavily on the ground and they froze in place. “You shall all be busy enough. Unthings have been sighted gathering by the Silver River. That would be worrisome in most years, but we are sliding into a period of darkness where more things may emerge.”
He might have been telling them something they already inherently knew. They were nodding already. “WE ARE ONLY FOUR, THOUGH,” the talking beast pointed out.
“I will hope that among the family coming here there will be help. A message has been sent to the elves as well. But I have not had contact with them in years.” The Count shook his head. “I do not know if any of them still reside on this side of the river. ”
“WE NEED MANY MORE OF US AWAKE. THE GIRL IS NOT STRONG ENOUGH TO MAKE UP FOR THE ELVES. YOU ARE STRONG ENOUGH.”
“I am no longer,” the Count reminded them.
“YOU WERE ONCE AND COULD BE AGAIN.” The lions stared at him, their keen eyes slicing straight through him in a manner that made him visibly uncomfortable. The other lions continued to speak at Lambegus from all sides, anxious to be heard and have their master informed of all that was on their minds. The lion did his best to translate for them all in rapid succession, but the creature was losing patience as he tried to keep up with all the things being told to him. “BUT NOT YET. UNTIL THEN, THE BOY. THE BOY WHAT?” Back and forth his head went while he tried to sort out all the yowling.
“What?” The lord furrowed his brow, confused by this rather clumsy narration and by what the lions were trying to tell him. They spoke of magic – his magic – and at the same time had thrown him another puzzle to untangle. “The boy? Which boy?”
“GAWAIN SAID BEST FRIEND EDMUND OF ELANORE CAN HELP. UWAIN AGREES. GALAHAD IS NOT SURE. I DON’T KNOW.” Lambegus sounded frustrated. “ONE AT A TIME PLEASE. I’M SURE HE WON’T FORGET THE RIBBON. OF COURSE HE WILL COME BACK. ANOTHER STONE? WHAT?”
The man’s mouth turned down slightly, surprised and perhaps annoyed. He did not like the idea that there was something that had escaped his notice. While his sense of magic was nearly dead, he had been able to determine the suspicious nature of Miss Redley based on other factors. As far as he was concerned, the young man was another unremarkable example of a hunter. “What do you want with the hunter?”
“GAWAIN WILL TEACH HIM. THE BOY IS—” The lion stopped as his companions began to bicker again.
He had never known them to actually differ on any point. The Count’s look became quite stern. “A what. What is he?!”
“WE DO NOT AGREE,” Lambegus grumbled.
The troublemaker Gawain opened his mouth, clearly displeased by this statement.
“And you will not tell me?” The Count looked at them all before his eyes came back to rest on the only one who could speak.
“WE DO NOT KNOW FOR CERTAIN,” the statue nodded to himself. “BUT THE GIRL TRUSTS HIM AND HE CAN HELP HER.”
Wolfram looked at the four of them suspiciously. “Fine. Lambegus you will be asked to go watch him. If he’s that important to Miss Redley, keep him from trouble. I need another watching the girl.”
The other three lions started to squabble, clearly angling for that particular duty.
The Count tapped his cane again and they quieted. “The guards must come back tonight when night falls and report to me. The other two of you I need to hunt for some other things.” He drew a paper from his jacket pocket and unfolded it, holding it at the creatures’ eye level. “You must find these posts for me made by your creators. I suspect that you will be able to sense and smell them better than I could, at least.”
The beasts’ voices rumbled, appreciative of the Count’s sarcastic humor.
“Report their locations and conditions to me as you find them. Be attentive to landmarks so that others can find and inspect them. Avoid people and the main road if possible. I do not want you to lead others back here for now. Any questions?”
“NO, MASTER.” Lambegus spoke for all of them before they ran off, excited and anxious to do their work.
The Count watched them as they disappeared into the trees before he turned on his heel and wandered inside the house. He hoped they would be fine unsupervised.
In truth, he hoped for more than that. He had trusted that they would excel without much guidance, just like he had hoped Miss Redley would outperform all of his expectations. But as he paced the hallways in his home, he started to understand that she, Giles, and other mortal creatures needed far more attention from him than he had provided thus far.
Understanding people was not his strength. He had been so certain that her magic was strong. He could see it during her accidental demonstration of powers in the drawing room earlier in the morning. But the lions’ whispering about her was to remind him that her body was not used to magic nor how to control it. She did not have the benefit of years of practice. She was young and in need of guidance.
As he walked up the stairs and drifted towards Giles’ room, he wondered what could be done to assist her. The lions believed that the hunter who followed her might be able to do something but had been reluctant to divulge what that was.
For much of the rest of the day, the count would question himself and his ability to align everything and everyone correctly in order to save this place and the people he valued. He would wonder if he had been too distracted by the girl with the red hood—to see the other people in this town clearly.
At the very least, he had been blind to the hunter. But he would no longer.
If you enjoyed this week’s installment, please remember to vote for this story at topwebfiction.com!